Design is having its renaissance moment. The recent rise in design awareness over the last decade has been exciting and much of this is driven by online products and services becoming more mainstream. People are under it's spell, captivated by its charms. But while demand is strong, we also have to sort through all the problems that come with any new movement. This takes time.
Over the past couple years I've written a lot about the struggles design needs to overcome in spite of all this new found attention. The recent rise of design has designers very much in the hot seat, not in a seat at the business table. In my conversations with design and business leaders there's a general underlying problem brewing as designers continue to strut their way into the business problems without a clue of how to truly shape their organizations. Many designers with fancy new titles are finding themselves floundering. They've spent their entire lives mastering their craft only to find themselves ill-equipped for the problems design leaders are actually being asked to solve. Those hard earned design skills do little to help them meet the people and business demands their new roles expect of them.
In true Silicon Valley style, we're throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall hoping we can find a quick way to get the most out of our design efforts. And who could fault us? It's just how we do things here. I wouldn't want it any other way. Here's the issue though- most designers and observers are focusing on the wrong issues, seduced by beautiful yet shallow design.
Beauty Is Only Skin Deep
As I was reading through my email this morning, I happened on a nice interview from Tobias van Schneider with Stefan Sagmeister. 'Stefan Sagmeister says we'll look back on today's idea of design like we look at racism or slavery, like we can't quite believe we did it.' Oh really? So here I am thinking that I should be harder on my designer roots, thinking that as a group, we should embrace our opportunities much more than we do. Slavery? Ok. That's a strong argument, one that had me rethinking my own position around our design struggles in the Valley.
Smitten and love drunk, Sagmeister threw out a jab at a huge swath of the design world, 'The crap that's happening now online or in tech that's concentrated on functioning is exactly still the same idea as the Soviet building factories. It's that same mindset ' 'let's make it work'' but that's not human, that's not who were are.' As I read and reflected what I believe Stefan was trying to express, I realized his understanding of the challenges facing designers are more complex than putting an album cover on a highly complex piece of software (and yes, we've worked in the music industry).
The demands being placed on designers in the world of tech is unprecedented. Creating something that makes a splash for a moment is one thing. Try creating a design with sustained impact for an always on product that is being used, customized, and edited by tens of millions of people around the world at any given second. A teenager can plan a creative and extravagant date night, but do they understand how to maintain a happy and rewarding marriage for decades? Probably not.
Today's software requires some of the most complicated collaborations that we've faced as workers in the last century. That's not to say there aren't silly or pointless apps, but lumping everything into a 'make it work' mentality is very short-sided. In my two decades of leading design, I've had the opportunity to work on predictive technologies, software that protects people, supply chain management that gets supplies to the world, and cancer and genetic testing applications. To say that bringing 'functionality to a complex problem' isn't human is so...wrong. I hope he never touches a life preserving application.
'It's about choosing to be thoughtful about your design,' he Stefan stated. This is where I understood his perspective to be quite limited. Your design. This is the problem with our current situation- the designer's ego overwhelming the build of software, for the sake of being thoughtful. This IS the problem. We need to move past the idea of the black turtleneck designer by instead focusing on influencing design outcomes through collaboration. We need design leadership that embraces new ideas and leans into the stereotypes that Sagmeister propagates. Jackson Pollock might have been thoughtful, but creating a piece of provocative art, and solving the management of gene therapies are two different things.
'Nothing Is Beautiful From Every Point of View'
Some designers may have an issue with that quote from the Roman poet Horace, but I find it to be incredibly authentic, inspiring even. How so? Well, let's be honest here. Design is messy. People are messy. But that's okay. There will always be work to iterate on, to refine. That's what makes design is so damn interesting.
Like Stefan Sagmeister, I too believe there is more opportunity for design to grow. But it isn't going to happen by suggesting designers focus on beauty. That's infatuation and naivety. Real design means embracing everything that goes along with it, warts and all.
And yes, beauty is important when we consider the result of design work, but designers need to focus more on influencing their teams to create substantial impact and less time on pixel polishing. It's hard work and it's dirty but it builds the foundation for real and lasting change. Doing the dishes for a month straight trumps buying a bouquet of roses, trust me.
In the near term, the ineffectiveness of our new 'design leaders' is masked by the great need for designer and design leader talent. For the time being, designers will continue to just skip around from opportunity to opportunity looking for a happy grazing spot at an organization that allows them to focus on shallow details, just as Sagmeister suggests. Design leaders have been surfing that wave, but with what might be considered a distorted, individualistic motive. I'm not sure solving this problem is about being more thoughtful, but rather bringing more depth and rigor to the design discipline so that organizations understand what changes are needed. Design leaders aren't pushing the discipline or giving enough back to warrant their authority.
Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder
I've had the privilege to interview some of the top design leadership talent to learn more about how they see design in their organizations. The ways in which companies are tackling these issues is quite varied. Many seem limiting. Some are bizarre. Granted, we've worked in an industrialized, get things done mentality for over a century, so changing into a model of inspiring knowledge workers to make creative breakthroughs is relatively new. It's going to be a process of moving to a divergent thinking and abductive reasoning mindset, but it's going to be required for organizations to effectively use design.
After two decades of leading design decisions and grooming some of the Valley's best design talent, there are some obvious issues and patterns I see that have emerged. The lack of solid design leadership remains a core concern, but just as importantly, the general lack of support in corporate environments that encourage creative risk taking and enable designers to influence outcomes. It's a stalemate. Until something changes, we're going to dig ourselves into deeper levels of pain. If organizations want to solve wicked problems, they no longer have a choice in how they groom leaders, especially designers. The old way was to teach leaders to delegate, to propagate a more efficient production engine. The new way will be to help them colead and this is where design can play a significant role. But this isn't about being more thoughtful, it's figuring out how we support design in our organizations.
The scales are going to eventually shift and we're going to have to address the issues that hold us all back. I believe we still have many more levels of hell to overcome before things improve for organizations as it relates to design. Surprise tactics will no longer work, and designers are still faced with defending methods that seem sometimes outrageous. The struggle exists on all sides as business leaders struggle to understand how their design thinking shapes their business.
Breaking the Spell
Focusing on bringing beauty to design is good, but it's not the solution to moving teams forward. Organizations are not going to figure out these design problems unless design leaders starting looking beyond the skin deep problems and onto the real challenges facing our industry. It's a frightful thought for many, given that times are good for a designer. But the boat needs to be rocked and the spell needs to be broken. Only by taking more ownership of their work can designers collectively lead their organizations. We need the guts to inspire our teams to create amazing products and services.
While I've talked a lot about the challenges and growing pains our industry is facing, I'm extremely optimistic about the future and my passion for design is at an all time high. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: It's never been a better time to be a designer. We're solving some of the most interesting, complex and morally challenging design problems the world has ever experienced. I'm in love.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998